It is obvious to anyone paying attention that Americans have an obsession with Mexican food. Simply take a look at our fast food chains, food courts, strip malls and everywhere in between. You cannot say the same about any other ethnic cuisine. Sure, Italian is right up there, but besides pizza (which is mostly Americanized anyway), Italian cuisine has not quite taken over like the rampant spread of tacos, burritos and other notions borrowed from Latin culture. What is less obvious to me is, why?
In trying to answer this question, I decided I had to start at the roots of Mexican cuisine. I knew that a trip to Mexico was not in the cards right now and I was pretty sure that I would not find my answers if I only considered Taco Bell and the other major players in the "Mexican" food world. I wanted to go deeper and immerse myself in the cultures and foods of the Latin world. I wanted to make myself uncomfortable by having to speak my mangled, dodgy Spanglish and try things with tongue and tripe. I wanted to find those folks who were still very connected with our southern neighbors.
As opposed to the early settlers, the Swedes, Norwegians, etc. many of the Mexican immigrants who came to this country often came temporarily, for seasonal work. They would return to Mexico or send money back hoping to encourage family members to join them and therefore keep the cultural ties with their homeland strong. As their work turned into prosperity, they would put down roots, more family would come and the cultural infusion would be strengthened. As fellow writer Gabriela Lambert pointed out to me, this is a culture that puts a priority on family and community meals, so it follows that they would seek to create businesses based around those values and it also explains why sometimes when dining out it feels as if you are in someone's personal kitchen. Americans can be made to feel very shy about entering something this casual and intimate.
Knowing this, it is no wonder that a search for Mexican restaurants usually only turns up fast food chains, Chipotles and those huge chain restaurants that appear in the parking lots of strip malls and other shopping areas. It seemed almost impossible to find those places that you have driven by hundreds of times but not had the wherewithal to stop in and eat. Perhaps we are just too shy.
I considered what I knew about Mexican food to try and glean any more information in this quest for answers. Here is what I came up with:
- I know that Mexican food is almost always well seasoned, especially the meat.
- Almost every dish has some sort of vegetable/bean presence (think chilis, tomatoes, radish, onion, garlic, lettuce, cilantro, and sometimes potatoes).
- It is easy to avoid highly processed and fried foods.
- The restaurants are usually owned/operated by proud, hard working folks.
- The food goes amazingly well with beer.
Ok, none of that helped me to understand why I don't stop and smell the salsa. So, it is time that I did. I invited my intrepid food partner, Charles into the mix. Charles is afraid of no food (except that which is ill-prepared), so I knew that he would be perfect to take along on this adventure.
We sat down and formed some ground rules, to be fair and consistent.
1. What would we order? This can be overwhelming when you love food and we wanted to be consistent, but also fair. We decided that in fairness to each establishment, we would ask our server to tell us their favorite (or if that failed, the most popular) item on the menu. This would invite a bit of the unpredictable, allow the workers/owners to share their pride and also expose us to new foods. We then decided to always try a taco and/or tamale (a couple of standards), if they were on the menu. Our budget would be $25 total, no drinks.
2. We refuse to comment much on the atmosphere or service. To me, there are too many confounding variables at play here and it is often unfair to judge what you simply don't know much about. Many of the places we plan to go are working on a shoestring budget and simply cannot afford to deck out their bathrooms with marble and glass. Also, many workers at these restaurants are performing more than one task. They may serve your table, but probably are also doing at least a couple other jobs. Plus, we simply are not in a hurry. We like to eat slow and easy. Don't get me wrong, we love hot food, delivered attractively by friendly servers and will point out when this happens. And of course, if there are safety issues or we have an absolutely terrible experience, we will either state that or not run the review.
3. We refuse to us the word authentic. I don't even know what that means. To some it means that Spanish is spoken, to others that their tacos are served with just meat, cilantro and onions. I don't care to get into it. What is authentic to one person's family and homeland, may not be to another. We simply want to know if the food is tasty and well made.
4. We want to focus on local, one-of-a-kind places in the twin cities metro area.
There you have it, look forward to our eating adventures soon and help us on our way. Have a favorite place that we should put a spotlight on or a restaurant that you've always wondered about? Let us know in the comment section below or send us an email.
As we publish our reviews, we will provide the links here:
Mi Sinaloa- mpls
El Bravo- st. paul
El Guayaquil- mpls
El Taco Riendo- NE mpls
Taqueria El Ranchito- Richfield
El 7 Mares- St. Paul
La Guadalupana market- St. Paul
Taqueria la Hacienda- mpls
La Mixteca- Bloomington
Taco Taxi- mpls
Catalina's- Columbia Heights
Las Teresitas- mpls
El Taquito- West St. Paul
Cocina Latina- mpls
Manana Restaurant and Pupuseria- St. Paul
Homi- St. Paul
El Loro- Crystal
Taqueria Hidalgo- Burnsville
La Hacienda- St. Paul
Marissa's Deli- Mpls
Andale Taqueria- Richfield
Pupuseria La Palmera- Mpls
Bymore Taqueria- Eastside St Paul
Somos Peru- Mpls
Aurelia's- Eden Prairie
Nacho's Supermercado- Hopkins
Gorditas El Gordo- Mpls
Maya Cuisine- NE Mpls